The State of Our Taste 2014

Navel oranges by www.bluewaikiki.com, from Flickr, under Creative Commons.
Navel oranges by www.bluewaikiki.com, from Flickr, under Cre­ative Com­mons.

This is nothing more significant than an attempt to take stock of our own feelings about beer as of 2014.

We’ve tried to be hon­est with our­selves – to con­sid­er our actions and reac­tions rather than ‘ide­ol­o­gy’: what, when push comes to shove, do we order at the bar, or take from the fridge? What do we actu­al­ly enjoy drink­ing?

1. We approach bot­tled beer from small brew­eries with low expec­ta­tions. We assume they’ll be under- or over-car­bon­at­ed; we expect to pour away more than half of those we try;  and we’re sur­prised when any­thing ‘exper­i­men­tal’ actu­al­ly works. And we get less enjoy­ment than we used to out of wad­ing through duds to find a gem. Or, to put that anoth­er way…

2. We find our­selves drawn to reli­able beers and brew­eries. Punk IPA is unlike­ly to explode, need pour­ing down the sink, or make us feel nau­seous. At the same time…

3. We can’t be both­ered to drink main­stream bot­tled brown bit­ter any more. It’s so rarely any­where near as good as a pint in the pub and (brace your­selves) often sim­ply too fizzy for our tastes. (We don’t mind high car­bon­a­tion but ‘fizzy’, to us, means specif­i­cal­ly bub­bles, as in a glass of min­er­al water, often accom­pa­nied by thin body and no head.)

4. The mag­ic has gone out of our rela­tion­ship with Amer­i­can beer. Is it to do with fresh­ness, com­pe­ti­tion from UK brew­ers, or han­dling by UK bars? Or have we just become jad­ed? At any rate, after try­ing a whole range of kegged IPAs (e.g. Lagu­ni­tas, Founder’s All Day) on mul­ti­ple occa­sions, in the last year, in Lon­don, Bris­tol, Man­ches­ter and Leeds, we found our­selves under­whelmed – where’s the ‘zing’? (We find that Ska Brew­ing Modus Hoperan­di in cans has zing, as, odd­ly enough, does Goose Island IPA.)

5. Liv­ing out­side the urban ‘craft beer’ bub­ble has its frus­tra­tions, and its ben­e­fits. We don’t have easy access to bars or pubs with large rotat­ing ranges of beer, and the ubiq­ui­ty of Doom Bar and Bet­ty Stogs is a tri­al. On the oth­er hand, we’ve learned that St Austell Prop­er Job and Orval from bot­tles, both of which we can find reli­ably in local pubs, nev­er seem to get bor­ing. On which sub­ject…

6. Bel­gian beer fas­ci­nates us more and more. There’s some­thing dispir­it­ing about the idea of ‘unob­tru­sive yeast that lets the hops real­ly shine’ – prac­ti­cal­ly a mantra for US-style IPA brew­ers. The Bel­gian tra­di­tion puts yeast char­ac­ter right up front and gives us anoth­er set of flavours to grap­ple with.

7. We wish we had more of our home brewed lager. We don’t think it’s objec­tive­ly great, and it wouldn’t score well in com­pe­ti­tion, but we get a thrill out of drink­ing it that’s hard for any com­mer­cial beer to match.

26 thoughts on “The State of Our Taste 2014”

  1. Extreme­ly inter­est­ing post, because over the last year or so I’ve had a very sim­i­lar expe­ri­ence. I still do enjoy craft beer, but very very rarely do I find some­thing that blows me away. At tast­ings with friends where they bring the hippest and hypest I find myself enjoy­ing the talk and the cheese more than the beer.

    And I couldn’t agree more about the exper­i­ments. When a craft brew­ery tries some­thing new it might work, but odds are it won’t.
    My cure to this malaise has been farm­house ale, where the exper­i­men­ta­tion was done over cen­turies, for the most part leav­ing only those inno­va­tions that real­ly do work.

    Lots more thoughts on this, but it will have to wait for future blog posts.

  2. Point 4: Absolute­ly on the mon­ey. I find myself drawn to the UK beers rather than the Amer­i­can beers when I go to Cot­teridge Wines these days. Maybe it’s the fresh­ness. Maybe it’s the price tag. But where there was once a gap that only an Amer­i­can IPA could fill, there’s now a huge range of choice from our own brew­ers. We’ve caught up. And over­tak­en, I think.

    Point 5: I love Corn­wall. I love the fresh food, the beach­es and the lit­tle towns. I’m not a great fan of the the pubs though. I like Trib­ute, but I like oth­er beers too and would like to see some choice on the bar. When I stayed in Fowey recent­ly I couldn’t find Har­bour beers any­where, despite being only a few miles from the brew­ery. I like Prop­er Job (in bot­tles) but the cask ver­sion is com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent and lacks punch. I tried Big Job recent­ly and it was fan­tas­tic. Why can’t I find it in its coun­ty of ori­gin? I also tried Korev and thought it was a great lager, so why it is so hard to find on tap a few mere miles from the brew­ery? And don’t get me start­ed on the abom­i­na­tion that is ‘Cor­nish Rat­tler’…! I sup­pose the Cor­nish Yoof need some kind of alcopop they can call their own.

  3. While it’s far from uni­ver­sal, I quite see what you mean about many main­stream PBAs hav­ing an over-fizzy body and poor head reten­tion and end­ing up being very under­whelm­ing.

    I won­der if there’s a dis­tinc­tion between retain­ing some of the orig­i­nal CO2 aris­ing from fer­men­ta­tion against being entire­ly depen­dent on exter­nal “fizzy pop” car­bon­a­tion.

  4. can’t agree with you more on all points, espe­cial­ly #4. I don’t want to pay over the odds for a non-fresh IPA when I can get plen­ty of decent stuff from the UK (and lat­ter­ly Ire­land) now. I’d still love to go and drink it at source but don’t see that hap­pen­ing any time soon.

  5. Do you want to elab­o­rate a bit on what you mean by “small” and “reli­able” in #1 and #2?

    I mean, no need to name names for the unre­li­able side of things, but a “small brew­ery” could cov­er a lot of things, from many of the estab­lished crafty types[1] to a local gar­den shed real ale oper­a­tion to ex-home­brew­er-with-big-ideas new craft brew­eries or what­ev­er. I tend to have a fair­ly good hit-rate with small crafty types, although that’s prob­a­bly part­ly because our local bot­tle shop seem fair­ly seri­ous about qual­i­ty con­trol with respect to what they stock – maybe anoth­er advan­tage to being slight­ly out of the craft loop is that stuff has to hit a cer­tain base­line of qual­i­ty for some­one to both­er shift­ing it this far from Bermond­sey!

    [1] yer Par­ti­zan, Bris­tol Beer Fac­to­ry, Red­wil­low, Bux­ton, Weird Beard, what­ev­er…

    1. Dave – ‘reli­able’, in this con­text, refers to our per­son­al expe­ri­ence. There are a hand­ful of brew­eries whose beers we almost always enjoy. We’d be sur­prised to have a Mag­ic Rock beer we didn’t like, or a Thorn­bridge one that wasn’t at least decent.

      There are some brew­eries that pro­duce one or two beers we love, while the rest of what they do leaves us cold. For exam­ple, we’ve now had a whole bunch of beers from Brew By Num­bers; the cucum­ber and juniper sai­son is a con­tender for beer of the year; one or two of the oth­ers were OK; and a cou­ple more we didn’t real­ly enjoy at all because they were too rough.

      The rea­son we’ve left ‘small’ vague is because we’re think­ing of every­thing from ‘craft’-branded rail­way arch oper­a­tions to region­al real-ale-in-a-bot­tle oper­a­tions. We’re not say­ing they’re always bad just that we find our­selves assum­ing they’re going to be, based on expe­ri­ence. (‘Bad’ being sub­jec­tive, of course.)

      1. Cheers, that makes sense.

        It’s quite inter­est­ing that in the ear­ly days of UK craft beer being a thing, as I recall it, if you want­ed any of these excit­ing new beer styles then you pret­ty much had to accept that you’d be pay­ing a bit of a pre­mi­um and try­ing new, exper­i­men­tal, and poten­tial­ly slight­ly shon­ky beers every week. Where­as now the two seem to be decou­pling a bit, and some brew­eries (Bux­ton and Thorn­bridge spring to mind) seem to be mov­ing more towards qual­i­ty over quan­ti­ty (of dif­fer­ent beers), to serve peo­ple who like Impe­r­i­al Porters and US-style hop bombs and so on but don’t mind hav­ing the same beer twice every now and then.

        To some extent, this is pre­sum­ably a func­tion of sup­ply catch­ing up with demand over the last few years, and the mar­ket that bleed­ing-edge “the new Ker­nel” type brew­eries are com­pet­ing in get­ting increas­ing­ly tight…

        1. Unless, of course, I’m just imag­in­ing this or extrap­o­lat­ing it from myself as anoth­er per­son who’s decreas­ing­ly both­ered about try­ing to keep up with this week’s lat­est and great­est…

  6. Well, giv­en that most Eng­lish bot­tled beers with any dis­tri­b­u­tion are like­ly pas­teur­ized and fil­tered, and the hop lev­els cur­rent­ly used, I can see that they might pall. The bot­tle-con­di­tioned or unpas­teur­ized ones from craft-tra­di­tion brew­eries, where avail­able, should be excel­lent.

    I think the U.S. kegged exports are prob­a­bly los­ing some aro­mat­ic qual­i­ties on the way over. They are best very fresh because the hops are often used for aro­ma not bit­ter­ing. To appre­ci­ate these tastes at the best, it is best to drink the many U.K. beers which emu­late that style to a t, and you men­tioned Punk IPA which is a per­fect exam­ple.

    Qual­i­ty lager, domes­tic made, is real­ly the great future of craft brew­ing in the U.K., IMO. The brew­ers will have to work at it, qual­i­ty lager is dif­fi­cult to make well.

    Gary

    1. The bot­tle-con­di­tioned or unpas­teur­ized ones from craft-tra­di­tion brew­eries, where avail­able, should be excel­lent.”

      There are BCd strong ales and IPAs from region­al brew­ers, but hard­ly any stan­dard bit­ters that spring to mind.

      1. Well, White Shield at least I’d think. This is part of the prob­lem actu­al­ly, more Eng­lish-style bot­tle-con­di­tioned beers are need­ed.

        Gray

  7. There is also Blue Bird Bit­ter. I wouldn’t call White Shield IPA real­ly as it doesn’t have the Amer­i­can taste or a strong hop qual­i­ty, but it is a bit high (ABV) per­haps for a bit­ter as cur­rent­ly under­stood.

  8. Maybe its my prox­im­i­ty to a cou­ple of major importers but I’m gen­er­al­ly get­ting US beers fresh­er than most UK ones! Far as bot­tles for home go, I’d agree a micro brewed 4% brown ale is like­ly to be at best dull, punk as a go to? Nah I can get sier­ra Neva­da pale 20p cheap­er, with us ipas there is a bench mark drawn by say tor­pe­do, modus hoperan­di, stone ipa (with­in 2 weeks of brew­ing its mind­blow­ing­ly good) which leaves many US imports look­ing poor. And fair few im think­ing of bet­ter UK beers for less dosh. Though I’m spoilt with my local ish brew­ers includ­ing ilk­ley, kirk­stall, mag­ic rock and mallinsons. My actu­al pur­chas­es favour the new and dif­fer­ent but with a lot of brew­eries on my ‘prob­a­bly won’t both­er’ list.

  9. If white shield isn’t an ipa then ipa has changed its mean­ing. It’s not a US influ­enced ipa I’ll give u that

  10. I large­ly agree and the post some up the way I feel. I’m large­ly try­ing to avoid buy­ing bot­tles of beer from micro brew­ers now due to the hit and miss qual­i­ty and instead opt for Thorn­bridge or brew­dog as these are always good and cheap­er .

    Its actu­al­ly very annoy­ing that some small craft brew­ers are charg­ing top prices for their prod­ucts that in my expe­ri­ence out of the bot­tle are often under carbonated/totally flat. Most­ly sold at the same price you would expect to pay for a top end pint of cask in a craft pub.

  11. Steve, I meant it most­ly for the lack of Amer­i­can hop taste, since IPA in Eng­land often con­notes the Stone IPA type of taste, i.e., big citric/piney hit.

  12. Giv­en the pro thorn­bridge posts can I say ive found their cask recent­ly hit and miss and keg while con­sis­tent­ly good, con­sis­telt­ly over­priced

  13. You can, but we can only real­ly make judge­ments based on our own expe­ri­ence, and we’ve nev­er had to pour any Thorn­bridge down the drain, or aban­don a pint of their beer unfin­ished.

  14. I bought six bot­tles from a small brew­er near us recent­ly (no names, no pack drill). #1 was great; #2 and #3 were very live­ly and tast­ed more sour than they should have been, based on com­par­i­son with the cask ver­sions of the same beers (which were superb when I had them); #5 was very live­ly and undrink­ably sour, and went down the sink; and #6 is still wait­ing its turn, although with­out very high expec­ta­tions. As for #4, the bot­tle broke – quite qui­et­ly and incon­spic­u­ous­ly (until I noticed the pud­dle) – while it was stand­ing under the stairs; I imag­ine inter­nal gas pres­sure was involved. The brew­ery very kind­ly offered to replace it with a cou­ple of bot­tles, although right now I’m not in a tear­ing hur­ry to take them up on the offer. I’m guess­ing the sour/gusher com­bo is what hap­pens when too much yeast gets at too much sug­ar.

  15. I have found thorn­bridge beer can be hit and miss . Obvi­ous­ly Jaipur is top notch but I have had wild swan bot­tles which taste sul­phurous . Could this beer the long neck bot­tles , usu­al­ly sit­ting on the top shelf in wait­rose get­ting light struck and not get­ting snapped up as quick as 3 for a fiv­er fullers

  16. I drink what I’d con­sid­er to be a lit­tle too much beer (Untap­pd reck­ons 500+ since Novem­ber), and I’ve only had to pour away 1 or 2 bot­tles in that time. Maybe I am just not that dis­cern­ing 😉 Had a few poor pints in though recent­ly, with a few places serv­ing flat keg beer (and I don’t even like beer to be high­ly car­bon­at­ed). Frus­trat­ing!

    1. Andy – ‘fussy’ is prob­a­bly the word you’re after, and we wish we weren’t.

  17. IPAs trav­el bad­ly. Amer­i­can brew­ing has real­ly swung in the direc­tion of late hop­ping, where all the aro­ma and fla­vor is com­posed of incred­i­bly del­i­cate and evanes­cent com­pounds. They don’t trav­el even well across state lines (a month is enough to real­ly dull the zing), what to speak of an ocean.

    This is one rea­son Bel­gians are such great imports. They’re brewed to sur­vive, par­tic­u­lar­ly because of that month in the warm room dur­ing bot­tle con­di­tion­ing.

  18. Love this post. Coin­ci­den­tal­ly, we’re tak­ing all of our man­agers to Bel­gium next month in part to re-engage with Bel­gian beers, which is where it all start­ed for us many moons ago…

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